Eagles' Villanueva 'feels like a football player again'

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Eagles' Villanueva 'feels like a football player again'

It’s been a while since Alejandro Villanueva could call himself a football player.

For Villanueva, a former U.S. Army captain who spent the past four years in the military (see story), the Eagles’ OTAs over the past three weeks have been the first time he's participated in football activities since a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals following his senior season at Army in 2009.

“I feel like a football player again,” Villanueva said following the Eagles' OTA on Tuesday. “I feel like I’m doing all the requirements that all the other players are doing, so I feel like I’m part of the team.”

However, his time with the Eagles so far hasn’t had much in common with his football experience at Army.

At 6-foot-9 and 277 pounds, Villanueva’s size and speed were so uncommon for Army that his coaches were never quite sure how to best maximize his abilities. He played three positions in four years, starting off as a defensive lineman, developing into a starting left offensive tackle as a junior before converting to wide receiver as a senior and leading the team with 34 receptions, 522 yards and five touchdowns.

The Eagles have determined that his size will be best spent as a defensive end, a decision that is perfectly fine with Villanueva. After the constant shuffling in college, he is looking forward to finally being able to develop at one position.

“[Playing defense] is a lot different but the coaching has been great, so I’ve been able to learn from all of them,” Villanueva said. “If they think I have a better chance of playing defensive [line], I’ll play there.”

Having not played defense since the beginning of his sophomore year of college, Villanueva has relied heavily on his new teammates to learn defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ scheme, particularly two-time Pro Bowler Trent Cole and second-year defensive end Brandon Bair.

Although his height would seem to give him potential as a pass rusher, Villanueva has concentrated mostly on learning the run-stuffing techniques that come with playing defensive end in the 3-4.

“[Defensive line] coach [Jerry] Azzinaro has been adamant about the key points I can focus on,” Villanueva said. “In our scheme, striking and using my legs are those things. As we progress, hopefully I can put those things into play and improve from where I started.”

In reality, Villanueva’s focus is not on what position he plays as much as it is simply making the team.

A team captain his senior year at West Point, Villanueva's biggest adjustment has been adapting his mindset to fighting for a roster spot after being a key player in college.

Earning a spot on special teams will likely be his best chance to make the final roster; he spent much of Tuesday’s session practicing with the kick return unit.

“Playing football at Army is pretty special and obviously I have a lot more experience there,” Villanueva said. “[Playing for the Eagles] is a different situation. At Army I played four years and was always able to contribute and now I’m just trying to make the team.

“Making the team [is my goal], so if they put me on all the special teams that would be the best news.”

In his few weeks as an Eagle, Villanueva has already received numerous questions from his teammates about his time in the Army. He served three tours in Afghanistan during his four years of service.

Although he is eager to move on with this new chapter in his life as a professional athlete, Villanueva has no problem with teammates asking him about his past. If anything, the camaraderie in the locker room has been his favorite part of playing football again.

“Sometimes they ask about it (being in the army) when they have a question that’s been burning them,” Villanueva said. “Usually they have a question about how things are run. It’s a learning experience for a lot of them. My teammates have been awesome, so it’s been pretty fun overall.”

Eagles Mailbag: Linebackers, stats for Zach Ertz and Derek Barnett

Eagles Mailbag: Linebackers, stats for Zach Ertz and Derek Barnett

I answered half of your questions yesterday, but we got a lot, so here are the rest: 

Well, the Eagles' linebackers were pretty good last year. At least they certainly weren't the problem. 

Jordan Hicks is returning for his third season and has Pro Bowl potential. The last thing he needs to improve is his run-stuffing ability. If he does that, he'll be very good. Nigel Bradham had an under-the-radar season in 2016. He worked very well with Hicks and is entering the last year of his deal. Now, he has a trial coming up in July for a felony assault charge, but as long as that doesn't keep him off the field, he should have another good year. Then, Mychal Kendricks, for as much as he gets criticized, isn't a bad third option for a third of plays. 

I'd agree that after those three, there's a clear lack of depth. Najee Goode, Joe Walker, Steven Daniels, Nate Gerry. Not super deep. But Goode is a decent backup, they liked Walker from last year before the ACL tear, Daniels is a wild card and Gerry is switching positions from safety to linebacker. 

Running back. No question. Carson Wentz would be decapitated in a quarter if I was at right guard. 

At least at running back under Doug Pederson, I wouldn't get the ball very often. And when I'd get the ball, I'm so small and so slow, maybe I'd be like a changeup in baseball and linebackers would miss me altogether. Until they hit me and I leave the field crying. 

Ertz: 80 catches, 900 yards, seven touchdowns. Those would be very slightly above the numbers he's put up in recent years, but in his second year with Wentz, that's reasonable. And seven touchdowns is a lot, but I don't think it's crazy. 

Barnett: Six sacks. This would be a pretty good rookie season. I'd set the over/under number at 6½, so I have Barnett slightly under just because he'll have to fight for time with a few players. 

Blount: This one is tougher — 700 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns. No, I don't expect Blount to have another 1,000-yard season. That's a lot of touchdowns, but Ryan Mathews was able to pick up eight last year and Blount should be better in short-yardage situations. 

1. I don't even know what a breakout season is anymore. Ertz is a good tight end. He's not Rob Gronkowski. He's never going to be Rob Gronkowski. So break out? Maybe not. But he's a solid piece of the offense, who needs to score more touchdowns. 

2. No. 

3. Yeah. At this point, I expect Dorial Green-Beckham to be the odd man out. Vinny Curry will be on the team and will have a cap hit of $9 million this year. 

Hi, Corey. Big fan. If Donnie Jones isn't a household name, I'd start to question your household. 

Eagles Mailbag: Fletcher Cox, OTA evaluations, Nelson Agholor

Eagles Mailbag: Fletcher Cox, OTA evaluations, Nelson Agholor

The Eagles have completed one round of OTAs and will kick off another next week, starting Tuesday. 

OTAs are basically light practices in shorts and there's not a ton to gain from watching them, but they're not completely worthless. We already learned who some starters are for now and got a chance to see some new players on the field. 

Training camp will be here before you know it. 

To your questions: 

This is an interesting question because I think if I'm his teammate, I'd be a little annoyed. Especially if I'm some backup player making league minimum and the $100 million man doesn't show. 

But it really isn't like that. Even talking to players off the record, they don't seem to be bothered that Fletcher Cox wasn't with the team during a week of OTAs. Basically, players assume if a guy isn't there, they have a reason and are working out on their own. 

Guys especially understand if a player misses because of contract reasons — get paid, fellas. Obviously, that's not the reason Cox is missing. He signed a $100 million deal last offseason. And Cox's absence allows some other guys to get more reps, which is good for younger guys. 

It definitely doesn't look good from the outside that Cox isn't there. And it's pretty obvious Doug Pederson wants him at the facility. But the players inside the locker room? They're more understanding. 

Let's pump the breaks on the Nelson Agholor OTAs praise. Sure, he looked pretty good in the one day we got to watch of practice this week, but Agholor has looked good in shorts before. 

Does he have a shot at being a starter? Maybe a very slim shot. But the chances he actually beats out Torrey Smith for a starting gig seem minuscule. Perhaps you're thinking Smith is completely shot after looking that way in San Francisco, but it's hard to imagine he can't beat out Agholor for the job. 

That said, Agholor will be on the team this year. His contract makes cutting him nonsensical. And it'll be interesting to see how he performs without the pressure of being a starter. To me, it would make sense to occasionally work him into the slot, something the coaching staff hasn't done much of in the last couple years. 

https://twitter.com/EPiechotaNBA/status/868151169490624513

I put these together because I want to make this point first: We have been allowed to watch only one of their three practices, so we don't have a lot to work from. But I'll give you what I can. 

Barnett: He looks impressive in shorts, at times beating Lane Johnson, who is a very good tackle. That bend we've heard so much about was evident really early. Remember Joe Douglas' talking about ankle flexion? Well, it's absolutely there. It's clear Barnett is a technician, but I'll reserve my judgment until training camp when the pads go on. 

Wentz: Thought he looked fine. I saw some folks saying they saw differences in his mechanics ... Eh. Hard to say in one practice. What I did see were a few beautifully tossed balls and some chemistry forming with Alshon Jeffery, who ought to be the team's No. 1 target this year.